Image Conscious

PGA Tour rookie Paul Casey hopes U.S. fans can forgive his jingoistic remarks at the World Cup
January 17, 2005

From mr. darcy to Prince Charles, English gents have always radiated a vibe of refined sophistication. So it was a bit of a surprise when at a recent dinner Paul Casey--born in Cheltenham, residing in Weybridge--declined to examine the wine list, saying in his clipped accent, "I know nothing about wine." It was a couple of days before Christmas, and Casey, 27, was at a restaurant outside Portland dining with a table full of Nike executives, celebrating a new multiyear endorsement deal. Though Casey starred at Arizona State and has a home in Scottsdale, he displayed a bit of confusion when it came to the Northwest's geography. At the mention of Seattle, he said, "That's north of here, right?" Casey didn't do much better when the talk turned to cinematic comedies. Harold and Maude? "Never seen it." Dr. Strangelove? "No, sorry." Groundhog Day, for the love of Pete? "I'm terrible with movies." It would be tempting to dismiss Casey as a callow, insular lad symbolic of a new generation of loutish Englishmen--think Liam Gallagher--but such generalities miss the mark. For starters, Casey is a charming dinner companion: down-to-earth, quick-witted and armed with an endless supply of terrific stories. More to the point, disparaging Casey and his countrymen so blithely would be not only unfair but also inflammatory, and Casey is a testament to the peril of bashing another nation. Once known merely as a player of unlimited potential, Casey created a transatlantic firestorm in November when, still strutting from having helped Europe win the Ryder Cup, he opined to the Sunday Times of London that American fans are "bloody annoying." Of the U.S. Ryder Cup team, he added, "Oh, we properly hate them."

These comments, and a few other choice riffs, were printed the week of the World Cup in Seville, Spain, where Casey was playing for England. The European press had a high time celebrating this brash young Brit who was willing to stand up to the Yanks--unlike, say, his compliant prime minister. But Casey's comments didn't play so well to American ears. Amy Sabbatini, a U.S. native whose husband, Rory, was representing South Africa at the World Cup, showed up in the gallery sporting a T-shirt on which stoopid amerikan was scrawled. Scott Verplank, playing for the red, white and blue in Seville, offered a masterly press-conference put-down that was widely disseminated: "If Paul is really that uncomfortable in America, I don't think anybody would miss him if he went back to England."

Casey's woes escalated on the eve of the third round of the World Cup when his sponsor, Massachusetts-based Titleist, put out a press release distancing the company from his controversial remarks. Noting that Casey's contract was to expire on Dec. 31, Wally Uihlein, chairman and CEO of Acushnet (Titleist's parent company) said, "... both parties have mutually agreed that it will not be renewed or extended."

Casey had already alerted Titleist that he wouldn't be re-signing and was in advanced negotiations with other manufacturers, but the timing of the press release fed the perception that Casey had been fired. London's Sunday Telegraph duly reported in a headline, american sponsor terminates casey's contract after his throwaway line stirs up a storm.

That Casey could shrug off all of the hullabaloo and carry teammate Luke Donald to victory at the World Cup shows his moxie. Casey will need it throughout the coming year because 2005 will be his first full season as a PGA Tour member. After four years of playing mostly in Europe, Casey has committed to teeing it up in at least 15 events in the States, the first of which is this week's Sony Open in Hawaii. Now all he has to do is convince the fans and his U.S. peers that he's happy to be here.

"People have asked if I am going to apologize, and the answer is no," Casey says. "I don't think I have to. I do need to do a good job of explaining what I meant."

The key to the Casey backlash was the "we properly hate them" line. Hate was used only in the context of a heated sporting rivalry, just as, he says, an Arizona State fan can hate an Arizona booster during a football game but buy him a beer afterward. This is a valid point, but in singling out a team playing for the American flag, Casey failed to appreciate how loaded the word is for a country at war and still recovering from a contentious presidential election. So now Casey wants to set the record straight: "Let me say I don't hate Americans--quite the opposite." The week after the World Cup he enjoyed Thanksgiving in Florida with the family of his longtime American girlfriend, Jocelyn Hefner.

Casey's contrition is genuine, and it comes with a certain urgency, as he knows that antagonizing American fans and reporters can have a profound effect on a golfer. Fellow Brit Colin Montgomerie is 0-for-America in his otherwise stellar career, having failed to win on U.S. soil in part because of his adversarial relationship with fans here. Says Casey's mentor, Nick Faldo, "Paul has to understand that people are going to have a go at him. He has to be smart enough not to get sucked in. Monty would fight back. He'd point and glare and the like, and that only encourages them to get louder and nastier."

Casey has vowed not to take the bait. "I'm simply going to smile and be professional and polite and try to win them over with good golf and good sportsmanship," he says. "I'm not one to lash out."

If American fans make an effort to get to know Casey, they will find there's much to like about him, starting with his overpowering game. While at Arizona State, Casey shot the lowest round in NCAA history (60), smashed Tiger Woods's Pac-10 record by going 23 under at the 2000 conference championships and broke Phil Mickelson's school record for single-season scoring average. The European tour's rookie of the year in 2001, Casey has established himself as one of the game's longest hitters while winning three tournaments as a pro. Even his near misses can be spectacular. At the 2004 ANZ Championship in Port Stephens, Australia, playing under a modified Stableford scoring system, Casey came to the 72nd hole knowing an eagle would win the tournament but a birdie would leave him in second place. He smashed his drive on the 336yard par4 to within 10 feet of the pin. That he missed the putt seemed beside the point. Says Faldo, "Some of the clubs he hits into holes, versus what I use, it's a stupid difference. If he is hitting his driver straight, every course is par-68."

Casey's need for speed goes beyond his swing. He keeps a Lotus Exige 2 in England and frequently takes it to the racetrack for hair-raising, tire-melting fun. Casey also has an irreverent streak, which was on display at the 2004 Masters, his first. The player parking lot at Augusta National is a gravelly expanse off Washington Road, but every day Casey drove a few friends the length of Magnolia Lane, knowing full well he'd have to turn around at the end. What made the excursion all the more enjoyable were the tunes he blasted in his courtesy car: the theme song from Caddyshack one day, the Cult the next.

Casey had just as much fun on the course. He went into the final round only a shot off the lead and tied for sixth, by far his best finish in a major championship. "I always thought I had to play my best to contend in the majors, so I would try too hard," he says. "But I simply played my regular game and I was right there. It was a mental hurdle I got over." This was backed up by the 66 he shot to tie for the first-round lead at the British Open.

Casey accomplished his primary goal for 2004--earning a spot on the Ryder Cup team--and he was the hero of one of the key matches, making a bloodless par on the brutal 18th hole to win a four-ball with David Howell over Chad Campbell and Jim Furyk that blunted the U.S.'s desperate rally on Saturday morning. Still, Casey was disappointed not to win a tournament individually, after nabbing two victories in '03. Now, knowing the eyes of the golf world will be on him in '05, he says, "The motivation has come back full force. I've never been so focused in my life."

Already a buff 180 pounds, Casey worked out seven days a week in December. (Asked how tall he is, he says, "Five-foot-10." To which his droll agent, Francis Jago, snorts, "In heels.") Casey has also put in long hours on the range with his instructor, Peter Kostis, working toward further harnessing his awesome power and refining his wedge play. How good can Casey be? "I will be extremely disappointed with his career if it doesn't include multiple major championship victories," says Kostis.

Casey takes such expectations in stride. After touring the glittering 158,833-square-foot Tiger Woods Center on the Nike campus in Beaverton, Ore., he said, "I simply hope I'll win enough so someday they'll name a bench after me, or maybe a shed to park the golf carts."

Casey's switch from Titleist to Nike has thrown into sharp relief the culture clash between the two companies. Casey is still smarting from Titleist's World Cup-- week press release. "It was disappointing the way they handled it," he says. "I was disappointed with Wally."

Uihlein, in turn, was peeved that he received no heads-up from Casey about the gathering storm, and that the only contact from Casey during the World Cup was a short e-mail stating that he would not be re-signing. As for the pointed press release, Uihlein says, "We were receiving 25 to 50 e-mails per hour from U.S.-based customers threatening to boycott our products unless we clarified our position with Paul Casey. Players want to be independent contractors, free to say what they want to say. But they also want to be paid for representing the company. When any personal-opinion comments are made by a player, it is possible that those comments can put the company they are associated with in a lose-lose situation."

Bob Wood, president of Nike Golf, says there are no plans to address Casey's controversial remarks through advertising, but Wood doesn't seem to mind the buzz surrounding his newest endorser. "We're not afraid to be a little edgy here," he says.

Though Casey is ranked 29th in the world, he has always quietly gone about his business. Not anymore. "This has all been a surreal experience," he says. "I can't wait for the season to get going so I can let my clubs do the talking."

Pause. Smile. "Which will be a nice change."

Because of the controversy, Casey says, "the motivation has come back full force. I've never been so focused."

COLOR PHOTOPhotographs by Rich Frishman NEW LOOK After a contentious parting with Titleist, Casey was signed--and outfitted--by Nike. COLOR PHOTOWARREN LITTLE/GETTY IMAGES COLOR PHOTOACTION IMAGES/WIREIMAGE.COM UNMADE IN AMERICA Casey (left) says that, unlike Montgomerie, he won't respond to the taunts of fans. COLOR PHOTOPhotographs by Rich Frishman ALL ON THE TABLE Casey, at 27, has starred in a Ryder Cup and risen to 29th in the world. His next goal: a major championship.